It's more than hunt for dog and owner Blind camaraderie: The bond between gunner and animal transcends the sport of waterfowling.

January 17, 1996|By Mike Klingaman | Mike Klingaman,SUN STAFF

CAMBRIDGE -- Ordell Braase crouches in a cold, damp duck blind -- shotgun in hand, hunting dog underfoot. Twilight is nigh; mallards move just before sunset, and Braase is poised for the afternoon flight.

Cautiously, he peeks over the icy marsh grass. Nothing moves, save for a dozen decoys bobbing in the cove on the choppy Little Blackwater River. Braase, former Baltimore Colt, sighs and sinks back down. He is waiting for the game to start. Shooting for that first down.

Braase, a hunter for most of his 63 years, is patient. His dog, a young Labrador named TJ, is not. The 11-month-old pup shifts restlessly beside her master, slipping off unannounced to cavort in the stubble of a nearby cornfield or to gnaw on an empty shotgun shell box.

The retriever's antics are met with disdain. "TJ, sit! And that means for more than one second," Braase growls. Then he pats her head. TJ thumps her tail, licks his face. "Nobody appreciates your kisses," he says gruffly, hugging the animal as they hunker down in the blind again.

Such is the camaraderie between duck hunter and dog, an affection that regularly transcends sport, Maryland waterfowlers say.

"A dog isn't like a fishing rod that you hang on the wall once the season is over," says Jack Scanlon, a duck hunter and dog breeder who lives here. "There's a tremendous attachment between you, due to the nature of the hunt.

"The dog gets up before dawn with you, hides in the freezing bushes with you and shares your sandwich -- and the sunrise. The dog can't appreciate that sunrise, but it appreciates being out there, and you appreciate the dog's appreciation. That's where the relationship develops."

Each duck season (this year's ends Saturday) brings new tales of the bond between man and animal -- of hunters risking all to rescue dogs trapped in icy creeks and of grizzled old-timers weeping upon the loss of a favorite canine.

"A lucky man has one good woman and one good dog in his life," says Chip Mills, Cambridge veterinarian and waterfowler. "I've seen hunters who aren't emotional about anything but their retrievers. Drop a truck on their foot, and they won't shed a tear. But let their dog get hurt, and . . . well, it's touching to watch."

Last month, a Dorchester County man endangered himself to save his dog, who had plunged through the frozen Little Blackwater while retrieving a bird. Chuck Hughes grabbed a canoe, rammed the paddle through the ice and skittered out 200 yards toward Feather, a yellow Labrador who'd paddled 15 minutes in the frigid ring of water.

grabbed her just as she went under," says Hughes, who collapsed in a heap back on shore. "I thought my heart would explode." And Feather? She shook off, nuzzled her owner and stared longingly at the dead duck on the ice, two football fields away.

Such heroics typify their genre, waterfowl hunters say.

"If my young son fell in an icy river, I'd trade lives to save him," says Bob Costa of Shady Side, Anne Arundel County. "I believe I'd do the same to save my dogs."

Too much suspense

It's 4:30 p.m., and Braase hasn't squeezed a trigger. He has seen three noisy geese, two sea gulls and a heron that landed briefly on a nearby rock. But not one duck.

The suspense is too much for TJ, who bursts from the blind and plows into the water to splash amid the decoys.

Braase rolls his eyes. "You had to do it, didn't you?" he mutters as TJ trots back to the blind dripping wet, refreshed by the 30-degree dip.

Far more dramatic was the dog's introduction to swimming last summer. TJ leaped into a farm pond to fetch a foot-long rubber retrieving dummy, as Braase paced the shoreline.

"She'd never been in water over her head," he says. "I was concerned."

Concerned? "I thought Brace was going to jump in and give her mouth-to-mouth resuscitation," says Janice, his wife.

He and the dog are inseparable, she says. Braase can tick off TJ's birth date (Feb. 22), favorite food (furniture) and chew-toy (a dog-eared copy of the book, "Training Your Retriever").

Each morning, Braase walks TJ one mile around their Towson neighborhood; afternoons are spent doing obedience drills in the yard. Come evening, TJ -- short for Tecumseh Jubilation -- stretches out like a bearskin rug before the fireplace and watches television with the family.

"Have we bonded? I'd say so," says Braase.

He beams at talk of the dog's bravado on her first hunt last fall, along a creek near Easton. During a lull, and at low tide, Braase pitched the training dummy into the water and hollered "Fetch!"

TJ bounded from the blind and immediately sank to her chest in mud.

"Some dogs would have stopped right there," says Braase. "But TJ barreled through 15 yards of that mud, hit the water, went another 15 yards, grabbed the dummy in her mouth, plowed back through the mud and sat next to me in the heel position. She held that dummy until I told her to drop it.

"I was proud, very proud, to see such intensity," he says. "It's like watching your child make a good play in football."

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